“Magazine Dreams”

I’m still struggling with “Magazine Dreams,” a very merciless and unpleasant film about the dangers of toxic masculinity. On one hand, I want to applaud writer / director Elijah Bynum‘s fearlessness in telling a difficult story with serious moral, ethical, and societal implications but on the other, the harsh themes and exploitative feeling of the film are hard to ignore.

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors, in a powerful lead performance) has serious anger issues, which has gotten him several months of court-mandated therapy appointments that don’t seem to make much of a difference. Killian lives with his grandfather and spends his free time working at a grocery store and working out to the point of it becoming a genuinely frightening obsession. He is preoccupied with the bodybuilding world and longs to be one of the award-winning professionals himself. This drive to be super fit has led the young man to inject himself with hormone drugs in order to build muscle, so much so that his body is beginning to shut down from all the steroids. This infatuation borders on mania and is so dangerous that Killian actually refuses a life-saving surgery simply because it will leave a scar, and “bodybuilders can’t have scars.”

Bynum’s story seems familiar because it is. Killian is a Travis Bickle style character, a violent loner with untreated mental issues who is angry at the entire world. He has a hair-trigger temper that’s terrifying when he gets angry, and he often resorts to violence when in the middle of a roid rage. Killian is a real danger to himself and to others, and he’s a legitimately terrifying character.

What makes this film different is that it’s set in the bodybuilding world, a health-conscious community where looks are everything. There’s a deeper layer to the story because Killian has low self-esteem and body issues, yet he’s absolutely ripped and in perfect physical condition. The more interesting aspects revolve around Killian’s crush on coworker Jessie (Haley Bennett), a sweet girl who can feel that something isn’t right on their first date (a chilling scene that’s extremely well done, tense, and intimidating). It’s this need for human connection that’s the most compelling, but Bynum goes too far in the opposite direction of violent toxicity instead of keeping things grounded.

“Magazine Dreams” paints a tragic story of self-destruction brought on by societal ideals of masculinity, but Bynum takes these themes so far that his film feels like an overly long exercise in pretension. His repetitive, shocking, and angry story ends where you’d expect, and most of the more combative content feels like he’s trying too hard to be provocative solely for the sake of being so.

By: Louisa Moore

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